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Small auto brands steal spotlight from big guys

Wednesday, 5 Feb 2014 | 6:00 AM ET

Two new auto industry reports show that a pair of brands with small but loyal followings are starting to grab share from larger, more established automakers.

Mazda and Subaru have long been known as "Steady Eddies" in the U.S. market: quietly increasing sales (both saw gains in the U.S. last year) while building reliable models that don't always get the attention they deserve.

That's starting to change.

The 2014 Mazda 3 sedan
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
The 2014 Mazda 3 sedan

The latest study from Kelley Blue Book once again named Mazda as the brand with the lowest projected costs over the first five years of ownership, while Subaru finally made the top 10 in Consumer Reports' brand perception survey.

The Kelley Blue Book study looked at seven categories—including depreciation, estimated fuel costs and insurance premiums—and calculated those total costs over the next five years.

(Read more: US probing Honda over airbag problem)

"From a value perspective, we believe Mazda represents the best deal for the consumer dollar at this point," said Dan Ingle, vice president of vehicle valuations for Kelley Blue Book.

Mazda stands out because its models are priced effectively, and offer strong residual value and great fuel economy, he said.

"Across the entire line-up, Mazda is a good value," Ingle said.

Lowest cost of ownership in first 5 years

Brand Cost of ownership
Mazda $36,032
Subaru $37,916
Toyota $38,051
Source: Kelley Blue Book

Although this is the second year in a row that Mazda has led the cost of ownership study, its U.S. sales were up just 3.5 percent last year.

"Some of that lack of recognition has to do with Mazda not having a lineup of models as broad as the competition," Ingle said. "When you talk to people who drive a Mazda, they are very loyal to the brand."

Subaru surges in brand perception

After years of steadily building sales on the back of reliable but rarely spectacular-looking models, Subaru is finally turning heads on a broader scale.

(Read more: Minicars perform poorly in crash tests)

The latest example is Consumer Reports' annual survey of brand perception for the auto industry, in which it cracked the top 10 for the first time. The Japanese brand jumped seven spots from last year's survey, to No. 6. It was the biggest year-over-year jump in the annual rankings.

Overall brand perception

Brand Score
Toyota 145
Ford 120
Honda 109
Chevrolet 105
Tesla Motors 88
Subaru 87
Mercedes-Benz 82
Volvo 80
Cadillac 78
BMW 73
Source: Consumer Reports

"Subaru has become the smart choice for many carbuyers," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor of autos at Consumer Reports. "It used to be when you asked people what car to buy, they would say, 'Buy a Toyota' or 'Buy a Honda.' Now people are saying, 'Buy a Subaru.' "

(Toyota and Honda still topped Subaru in the study, ranking No. 1 and No. 3, respectively.)

Yes, Subarus are not known for being edgy or eye-popping, but what they lack in sex appeal they make up for in safety and quality. In the last year, Subaru has grabbed headlines from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and from Consumer Reports for how its cars performed in crash tests and reliability studies.

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All but one Subaru model has earned a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS—the highest designation a model can receive after undergoing a series of crash tests.

Though Subaru should be able to parlay its rising profile into even more sales, it is taking care not to get ahead of itself.

U.S. sales jumped 26.2 percent last year, easily outpacing the industry's overall 7.4 percent gain. But instead of ratcheting up production to cash in on its surging reputation, Subaru has decided to be judicious about adding capacity.

(Read more: No reason to panic about January auto sales)

"Subaru is chasing top marks in every safety category, including advanced safety systems," Bartlett said. "These guys are now known for consistently building safe models, and that's creating a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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